That Pesky Railroad Drawbridge 
Submitted by: Joe Balazsy
On a cold winter day in 1961, I was an ET3 working the radar unit in the back corner of the conning tower of USS Dogfish (SS350) as we made our way up the Thames River toward our berth alongside pier 9 at the Sub base in New London, Connecticut. We had been out in Long Island Sound for a long day of dives and maneuvers designed to train young officers from the Submarine School.
As was our usual bad luck, the railroad drawbridge that spanned the river was in the down position, preventing our passage. Now, we could have simply signaled the bridge operator and then waited for him to perform the procedure to lift the bridge, thereby postponing our arrival back at base by a good 10 or 15 minutes, or we could try something else that only a submarine could do.
Our Captain, being a crusty old salt Lieutenant Commander who had worked his way up through the ranks, and who also happened to be sporting a cast on his broken arm at the time, decided to show these 'greenhorns' how it should be done. So, he summoned all 10 of the officer trainees to the bridge to watch and learn from the master.
The Captain called down to the chief of the watch who manned the ballast tank vents and told him to "cycle" the vents for the aft ballast tanks so as to let the boat down until the decks were just awash. He then turned his attention forward and ordered the chief to cycle the forward vents as he watched the progress from the bridge. All seemed to be going along pretty well except that the chief had forgotten to close the vents for the aft ballast tanks and the boat was going down fast by the stern.
My first notice of this event was when a column of water deluged in on us down through the upper conning tower hatch. I looked over and saw a steward who had been proceeding up to the bridge with a tray of hot coffee for the Captain and his 'guests'. At the sight of the flood, and in his excitement, the steward threw his tray of coffee towards me, narrowly missing myself and the Navigation Officer who was standing next to me. The steward had the presence of mind to reach up and grab the hatch halyard and then pulled the hatch shut. I stepped up the ladder and spun the dogs shut tight as he held the hatch down. Meanwhile, the helmsman never left his post alongside the ladder. He simply hunched his shoulders from the drenching and kept to his course. The young Navigation Officer confided in me that there might have been a time in the past when an event such as this would have upset him, but now he just took it all in stride. (Apparently, the salt was beginning to crust-up on him too.)
Meanwhile, on the bridge, the frigid water swirled neck-high up and around all hands. All hands, that is, except for the two enlisted lookouts who had the presence of mind to scamper up the sail and they didn't even get their feet wet! One of the lookouts told me later, in confidence, that he had used the Captain's arm cast as a step on his way up. The Captain hadn't seemed to mind or even notice.
By this time, the chief realized what he had done and shut the vents and blew the tanks fore and aft. We popped back up like a cork.
Needless to say, we waited for the bridge to go up before proceeding back to the Sub Base that evening. The Captain and all hands treated the whole episode as a grand adventure, and we had many laughs with the retelling of this story for some time thereafter.
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This page last updated: March 25, 2005